Why food assistance is about to drop to $23 a month for many low-income Vermonters
Last year, Joe Edson had to stop working. A medical emergency put him in the hospital for two weeks. Once he got home, money was tight.
“I got a dog and a cat,” he said. “There were days I would not eat, just to make sure they had food.”
Edson is 60 and from South Barre. He worked as a truck driver for 45 years.
“Half of my income is what I’m living off now,” he said. “Then half of that income is my rent. So you know how they say, ‘There’s no money at the end of the month?’ That’s a true story.”
In physical therapy, he told someone about how he was struggling to make ends meet. They helped him sign up for a federal food assistance program nationally known as SNAP, and locally as 3SquaresVT. It gives people a stipend to pay for food.
In Vermont, more than 70,000 people get SNAP benefits each month. It’s the largest food assistance program in the state.
Since the start of the pandemic, those payments have gone up significantly because of policy changes that give people the maximum possible benefits, regardless of exactly how much they make.
That means someone living on their own, earning up to $25,000 a year, qualifies for about $280 a month to pay for groceries. That’s what Edson gets now.
“I eat every day now,” he said. “I’m not skipping meals. What I do now is I make them in bulk. So if there’s a day I don’t want to cook a big meal, I got something in the freezer.”
He likes making shepherd’s pie and spaghetti with alfredo sauce and rice.
This April though, those pandemic-era payments will end. People at the high end of the income cutoff, like Edson, will only be eligible to receive $23 a month.
“As much as we support and applaud funding the summer program for students — it should not be funded on the backs of older Americans, including older Vermonters.”Mary Hayden, Vermont Association of Area Agencies on Aging
This drop in food assistance — from a couple hundred dollars a month to just over 20 bucks for many people — was going to happen eventually. But the timing is way earlier than expected.
“To say it came as a shock feels like a bit of an understatement,” said Ivy Enoch, who works with the advocacy group Hunger Free Vermont.
This funding is ending now because of a bill that squeezed through Congress in December — the omnibus spending law. It’s a huge package, over 4,000 pages long, detailing how the government will allocate its money.
“So it was just a lot of scrambling to try to understand the language in the omnibus bill and its actual impact on Vermonters,” Enoch said.
In the legislation, Congress swapped funding from one nutrition assistance program for another.
Lawmakers cut the pandemic SNAP emergency payments to fund extra benefits for families with children when school isn’t in session, starting in 2024.
News of that deal came as a blow to many advocates.
“As much as we support and applaud funding the summer program for students — it should not be funded on the backs of older Americans, including older Vermonters,” said Mary Hayden, who runs the Vermont Association of Area Agencies on Aging.
To be clear, it’s not just seniors impacted by ending this program. Everyone enrolled in 3SquaresVT will see their benefits decrease. But people living on their own, on a fixed income, like a lot of seniors, will see the biggest drop in their monthly payments.
And this change comes at a time when food and fuel prices have shot up, along with the number of people struggling to afford groceries. In Vermont, 40% of people have experienced food insecurity in the past year and a half, according to a poll of hundreds of Vermont residentslast spring.
Ashley McCarthy worked on that research at the University of Vermont. She thinks those findings are still accurate.
“You can't expect to have seen much improvement in terms of food insecurity when there haven't been any real improvements in those factors that are driving people to experience that in the first place,” McCarthy said.
“They have not changed the eligibility criteria for 3Squares. So that means by getting an 8% increase in their social security, many of these seniors are going to actually now fall above the eligibility criteria.”Thom Simmons, Senior Solutions
Many seniors will see an increase in their income this year — thanks to an 8% bump in social security benefits to keep up with inflation. There’s just one problem with that, according to Thom Simmons, who runs nutrition programs at the nonprofit Senior Solutions in southeastern Vermont.
“They have not changed the eligibility criteria for 3Squares,” he said. “That means by getting an 8% increase in their social security, many of these seniors are going to actually now fall above the eligibility criteria.”
Advocates like Simmons say there’s a way for Congress to fix a lot of these issues: through a piece of legislation called the Farm Bill.
It’s up for reauthorization this year, a process that would allow lawmakers to make permanent changes to SNAP and other federal food assistance programs. They could broaden eligibility criteria and bump up the minimum amount of benefits that people could qualify for.
But lawmakers just started working on this, and aren’t expected to pass new legislation any time soon. In the meantime, people like Edson, in South Barre, are preparing to make due with less, come this spring.
“I’m going to buy the things that I need — maybe I can stock up on some butter, bread — you freeze bread,” he said. “The stuff that costs the most, I want to get now while I still can.”
Lexi Krupp is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.